Monday, July 28, 2008

Hamfatter, Peter Jones, and the business of music.

Description: This is about a band that appeared on the BBC2 program Dragon's Den (you can watch it until Sun 3rd Aug if you've not seen it) who were seeking investment to enable them to record a new album. Their single came out last week. Peter Robinson at the Guardian has offered his opinion of the band - awful - and what adopting this sort of entrepreneurial model (of bands finding 'angel' investors) would mean for the future of music - Peter is unenthusiastic.

I watched Hamfatter do their thing on Dragon's Den. I then switched off. I should like this show. Somtimes I've enjoyed the drama to which the format lends itself, but equally I've found it cringe-making in the extreme. And my biggest problem is that I can't stand the Dragons. Peter Jones in particular.

I think the Hamfatter manager dude did a good pitch. But what a mug punter Peter Jones turned out to be ! £75K to own a piece of the Hams (at least that's what Peter thinks he's bought). In closing the deal he used the classic 'I know people at Sony' - that line must have been used so many times! And I loved the way he tried to catch the band out by trying to get them to play a snippet of their new material. Like hearing it would have made a difference ! What a way to make an investment decision.

In recent years Venture Capitalists have been trying so hard to make us believe that there is rhyme and reason behind what they do, and that they are a serious profession. And there goes Mr 'I'm a big boy' Jones sticking his size 14s right in. Er, Peter, you've just become the Ham's agent - still he's already got the pimp suit.

I don't know why Peter Jones aggravates me so much. Maybe I'm jealous of his money, or his height, or his ability for self-delusion. But I'm sure that there's something very wrong about the Beeb taking money from me on pain of prison, giving airtime to Peter for him to self-promote, and then him taking a financial interest in a project that gets reported on the Beeb's own news! Now, to be fair to Peter that might not be such a bad punt after all. Take a financial interest in a band that are guaranteed a huge audience just by virtue of you taking a financial interest in them. Nice. And what better people to have on side than those whose fortunes are linked to yours. The Beeb's actions have made far more difference to the Hams than Peter's £75K ever could. What a Dragon's Den success story a Ham's No1 would be.

cheer up lads ! you just got 75 grand ! - The Hams

Record companies have been doing this stuff for years - they get the right relationships with the right people in the largest media companies. When there's brown envelopes involved its called Payola. When the media's involved its called cross promotion. Perhaps its fitting that the recording industry should have Peter Jones replace it. They both exhibit the same level of cool, authenticity, and clear-headed decision making skills. The gossip was that Guy Hands at EMI told his people to sign the band at any cost. I can believe it.

The band have become the plaything of the Beeb and some blokes with money - I wouldn't say unwittingly though. If they had any creative integrity prior to their Dragon's Den appearance it's x-factored it out of them. I don't think that'll bother their new agent though. I reckon Jones wants to become the C21st Branson and he'll figure that this will help him. It probably will in terms of publicity, but financially an ISA would be a better bet.

'The girl I love' - the well timed single release from the Hams - entered the singles charts yesterday at number 71 (6 places above Sam Sparro's latest). So the Ham's fans have made the purchase, and now we'll wait and see if anyone else does. No doubt Peter Jones' friends and relatives employees are receiving emails from him right now - 'Buy Ham, Buy Ham!'

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Starting my blog

The official start date for this Blog is the 23rd August 2008.

This is quite delayed. I originally intended to get something up on the internet in October 2006. That deadline passed with a few ideas mooted, but nothing practical done. I then ended up working for a year, and it wasn't until August 2007 that I really felt I needed to get on and get something up on the internet. My first attempt at a blog didn't really go anywhere. I couldn't really clarify an idea in my mind about what it was that I wanted the blog to do.

I came across Twitter - short form blogging - and thought it was an interesting development. And it would be useful for me to let people know whether I was available for work. If my blog could attract an online audience, then I should be able to get more driving work. But I also wanted to earn money from the blog if at all possible. I'd not been that impressed with the story of the million dollar homepage (the original pixel ad) - but it had stuck in my mind. After seeing the struggles other bloggers have had to monetize their blogs, I thought pixelads would be nice and simple. It'll either work, or it won't. I don't have to worry about it.

My intention is to run this blog for a minimum of 1 year (from 23rd August 2008). I reckon the worst that can happen is that my pixelad space stays empty, and I pick up a bit more driving work. can Hopefully, I earn a few quid from the pixelad, and can afford to spend a bit more time writing and a bit less driving. The only subject I won't cover on this blog will be gossip about the artists I'm driving - apart from the fact I've no real interest in it, it'd be an abuse of my position if I did so. Oh, and I really don't want to be posting about blogging too much either - just because that feels like it would become an ever decreasing circle.

There is a reason why there's a picture of a single malt from Jura attached to this post, but you need to find it out for yourself.

A Brief History of the Pre-Internet Music Business

This article is about 6K words. If you prefer to download it as a pdf file you can do so here.

Here's a quick description:
This article examines the music industry from an economic and business history perspective. The claim made is that more new music is created when majors aren't dominating the market. Furthermore, it claims that to move forward into the internet age the music business must break free from its industrial mindset. This article is an adaptation of an earlier academic study.

I hope you enjoy it.

A Brief History of the Pre-Internet Music Business

Picture and description is from Wisconsin Historical Society's Photostream on Flickr

Part One
The Business of the Music Industry

The history of the music business, or for that matter any other business, cannot be usefully considered outside its environment. The environment in which the music business came of age economically was in the industrialised world of the C20th. Hence the music business is often referred to as ‘the music industry’. This reveals much about the music-money nexus. Music is produced and consumed in an industrial complex; the record company being the factory where music becomes a product, manufactured to supply the demands of their customers. Most music we hear today is filtered through such a system, where the primary function of all the major firms is, explicitly, to make the best return to their shareholders.

It is very important to keep such ideas in mind when exploring a history of the music business. Doing so reminds us that industry proclamations are influenced by the firm's 'reason d’ĂȘtre'. So, when the majors tell us that they need to make huge margins on the sale of their products because they invest so heavily in new talent, they’re putting effect before cause. They make huge margins because the profit motive is inherent to their corporate form (and they’re able to operate in a monopolistic environment), whereas they invest in new talent because it’s the strategy they believe will make the most money. These distinctions may seem subtle but they are important if we’re to get to the truth. The music industry would like us to believe that the interests of the music industry and the interests of music are one and the same. This history shows they’re not. When only a few firms control a big chunk of the market, and particularly when those firms feel under threat, the music industry can work directly against the interests of music. This has never been as true as it is today.

This history also touches on the question of what the value in music is, and where it comes from. Value might be an easy thing to grasp intuitively, but it’s a difficult concept to explain. Generally speaking people see value as related to price. Something that they consider to have value irrespective of price is often said to have sentimental value. Music can have great sentimental value; certain songs really mean something to us. And it’s this concept of meaning that is the most useful in understanding the core value in music.

Fundamentally, music is the ‘communication of meaning’. Value exists for the listener (and the artist) in the act of that communication of meaning. Getting a handle on the value of music helps dispel a mythology that the music industry has itself succumbed to on many occasions. The myth is that it’s the media carrier – the sheet music, the radio, the vinyl record, the cassette tape, the CD, the USB pen, the digital file – and the associated technologies, which give music its value. Carrier technology focuses music’s value at a price - a price which reflects the cost of the media carrier itself. Music technology generally, can influence music’s development and expand the musical soundscape. But music’s value has existed as long as music itself – indeed without the central ‘communication of meaning’, the surrounding technologies would be worthless.
Music’s political, cultural and social impact belies its economic impact; financially the music industry is a weakling (annually, the total sales of recorded music for the whole world added up to about one tenth of Walmart's turnover). The music business worries - as all businesses do - that it hasn't got as much money out of music as it should; the myth of media carrier value helps calm those fears. Nevertheless, for music, the media carrier is a cost, not a value.

Given the centrality of the artist and the listener to music itself, it is instructive that the following history refers to them only scantly. As with any business history, institutions and corporations figure heavily. The systems of control and methods of ownership that prevail are not unique to the music industry – they seem inherent to most, if not all, corporate, industrial and capitalist forms. However, unlike other industries, the music industry is not exploiting a limited resource. Its trying to monetize the actions of the artist and the listener. In its struggle to do this it has, during the course of the C20th (and particularly in the 1960's, as I argue below), gradually begun to recognise that its profits depend
upon the artist’s creativity and the listener’s ability to recognise meaning in the artist’s work.

What it has more trouble coming to terms with, is its own role in the music ecosystem. It is in essence a service industry; the largest firms act as recording agencies for their Principles – the Artists. However, in their bid to thrive they assume the nature of manufacturers that control the production process rather than agencies that facilitate it. They trade the passion for music that attracts artists, for the security of income that attracts finance. They consume competing firms until only the very largest survive. Until eventually in the first years of a new millennium, they stand astride their territories like dinosaurs with sensitive stomachs only able to consume the blandest victuals, producing gas, defecating and staring fearfully at the digital cloud that has suddenly darkened their horizons.

The graph below compares consolidation rates (i.e. the market share of the majors) with musical creativity. The story that follows gives an explanation of the events and circumstances represented by the ups and downs of the line on the graph. There is no definitive mathematical proof that music industry monopoly crushes musical creativity, just as there is no proof that it nourishes talent. By its nature creativity cannot be directly measured and the proxy used here – new music genres – is a subjective measure. Even so, to put it plainly, to me it seems both intuitive and obvious that when four large corporations control up to 90% of the industry, music is bound to suffer. You, dear reader, are invited to draw your own conclusion.

Part Two
The Music Industry doing Business

The market for music and music technology precedes the birth of the music industry by several hundred years. Musical notation was born in the medieval monasteries and it allowed monks to perform a specific musical piece; prior to this music existed only in memory. The invention of the piano, or rather its immediate predecessors, had an enormous impact on the way music itself was to evolve as it gave a clear ‘scaling’ of notes to which our ears soon became accustomed. Opera was a significant musical adaptation which also had a social impact, pushing music squarely into the political arena. The power of music to affect social change was recognised early on by the state and monarchs who sought to ban those performances they felt subversive.

A shift in the potential of music as both an art form and a commercially saleable product came at the end of the 19th century with the development of sound recording techniques. It was Thomas Edison who invented the phonograph in 1877, but his primary purpose lay in the reproduction of speech for dictation and education. Technological advances in the quality and ease of recording followed, but it wasn’t until the Columbia Phonographic Corporation noticed the interest its products attracted at fairs and penny arcades that sound recording’s potential for entertainment was really recognised.

In the early years of the 20th century there followed a battle of technologies between the disc and the cylinder. The competitive advantage was with the disc because 1000's of pre-recorded ebonite discs could be duplicated from a single zinc plate master recording, whereas the cylinder could only be produced in batches of 200. The standardisation of the carrier format was complete by 1914 when the patent for the disc, held by the Victor Company, expired facilitating an entry into the market by smaller entrepreneurial firms. This stage in the development of the music industry can be characterised as a shift to software. Previously pre-recorded music had been used as a way to encourage the sale of gramophones, but now, in the first decades of the C20th, the potential for the sale of recordings themselves was seen as the business model of the future.

Traditionally, music had been commoditised and sold by publishing sheet music so that songs could be performed by customers in their own homes. When a song became a hit, this was a lucrative business. Publishers could easily and cheaply obtain product as songwriters were often poor and would sell their songs outright. The biggest difficulty and largest expense was the promotion of the song. Prior to the invention of radio, promotion was done by persuading the leading performers of the day to sing the publisher’s songs, or getting them included in a successful stage production. The coming of radio meant that it became the radio stations (and eventually their disc jockeys) who needed persuading. Publishers would sell their sheet music whether the radio station played live music or pre-recorded music; the underlying dynamic - to achieve maximum exposure for a song - remained the same.

In the first decades of the C20th publishers sought new revenue streams. The relative decline in their income from sheet music sales made it look likely they were set to become the poor cousins of the recording companies. In the UK composers, publishers and performers were aided in securing their property rights by the Copyright Act of 1911. By 1924, the various companies that had been set up to collate and collect revenues from the reproduction of music were amalgamated into the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society Limited (MCPS), and collections for public performance (live or pre-recorded) came eventually under the auspices of the Performing Rights Society (PRS).

In the US the situation was slightly different. A similar copyright law had been passed in 1909 to enforce the mechanical copyright of publishers; the legislation backed a publisher's claim for compensation should anyone record his song with the intention of profiting from it. However, unlike the British Parliament, United States Congress thought that the copyright owner’s consent to perform a work publicly for profit was already implied in the publication and sale of printed copies of the work [sheet music]. The difference may seem subtle but this provision of the copyright law of 1909 [the right to publicly perform works without extra payment being due] was to completely alter the way business was done in the music industry. And, in doing so, was to be the source of often bitter controversy for decades to come. The problem was one of control. A publisher could not, once he had sold sheet music prevent, or more to the point profit from, his song being performed or played; there was no legal recourse. Publishers realised that the developments in the film and radio industries would be difficult to tap as potential revenue sources.

To remedy this situation the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was formed for the purpose of issuing licences and collecting royalties. Although formed in 1914, ASCAP did not begin issuing royalty cheques to its members until 1921. American radio broadcasters resisted pressure to make royalty payments for the records they played. Radio it was claimed, had bought the records and so, according to American law, had a legal right to play them. Besides which, playing records on the radio was tantamount to free advertising.

A battle of monumental proportions followed. ASCAP was determined to collect its royalties on radio play - which was fast becoming the major distribution media for music since its coming of age as a major commercial venture in 1921. And the broadcasters were equally determined not to pay. The broadcasters claimed that ASCAP was acting as a monopoly (which it was) and after having ASCAP outlawed in several states, eventually in 1939, the broadcasters formed Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) as a rival to ASCAP. Many of the musicians and composers who had been excluded from ASCAP (Appalachian musicians, country fiddlers, blues singers, and New Orleans jazz men) joined the BMI and began to get increasing exposure and payments for the air-play of their recordings. However, further disruption occurred in the US industry when the American Federation of Musicians called a strike in 1942 that lasted over a year. To put these problems into perspective, the US music market had the around same value in 1945 as it had in 1920, despite the significant technological improvements.

Concurrent with the problems of profiting from the new media of radio, the music industry also saw another key development in the 1930’s and 1940’s. This was the development of the ‘Star System’. Jack Kapp and Ted Lewis incorporated Decca Records in 1934. Instead of investing in machinery for the manufacture of records, Kapp focused his attention on a limited roster of heavily promoted ‘stars’. First among these were Bing Crosby and the Dorsey Brothers. As well as organising promotion for these artists, Kapp also concentrated on supplying the growing network of jukeboxes with Decca records, and perhaps most importantly, halved the retail price of a record. Jukeboxes had been popular in the South for a long time before they caught on in the north. One of the reasons for this was that they acted as an outlet for the music that didn’t get played on the radio (in particular black music).

Prior to World War Two the distribution network for music was reliant on the sales of recordings through retailers, airplay on the radio (some of which was paid for, some of which wasn’t), promotion through film, and jukeboxes. All of these methods of distributing and profiting from the sale of music had come about in the inter-war period, but had not translated themselves into increased revenues. And whilst the technology had developed, the music itself hadn’t changed much. But that change was just around the corner.

In the ten years from the end of WWII until 1955 the American music market was highly consolidated. Technological development continued with the introduction of the vinyl LP and vinyl single, which reduced production costs and was less fragile to transport than the old shellac 78-rpm recordings. The reduced costs of production did encourage independent firms to enter the market place from the early 1950’s and they gradually chipped away at the market share of the majors. By 1955 their share of the market had dropped by around 20%, but was still standing at around 75%.

The failure of the major American record companies to develop new music during the period 1948 to 1955 forms a key part of Peterson and Berger’s (1975) study of cycles in production in the music industry.
Peterson and Berger were two American sociologists. They claimed that (i) the market consolidation and homogeneity of product was part of a ‘concentration-competition cycle’, and more controversially that (ii) changes in market structure precede changes in music. To maintain their control in the period to 1955, the majors adopted various tactics; these included seeking vertical integration to help control the production process, developing links with media companies to secure revenues from television and film networks, payola (a bribe to a disc jockey), putting pressure on retailers not to stock the records of other firms, churning out ‘cover’ versions of songs the instant they became a hit, and reputedly using organised crime to control the networks of jukeboxes. The nascent independent record companies were involved in dubious practices too. Often independent record producers/promoters (they were often one and the same person) would act as middle men for the majors in assuring radio play through payola.

The payola scandals of the 1950’s have been extensively reviewed in print, both in academic works such as that by Seagrave (Payola in the Music Industry), and books for the general reader like the excellent Rockonomics by Eliot. Suffice to say here, that payola is inevitable when the distribution networks are limited and access to them is restricted. Maybe the radio broadcasters weren’t too far wrong when they claimed that playing records was tantamount to advertising; something for which people are used to paying.

The years between 1955 and 1957 are a crucial period in the history of the music industry and the events surrounding the birth of Rock n Roll are important in understanding the relationship between consolidation of the market and new music. Although the majors held sway in the years to 1955 (as discussed above) there had been some crucial changes in the structure of the industry. These were to do, at least in part, with the advent of television as a medium (by 1952 there were nearly 20 million TV sets in use in the US). This of course represented an opportunity to gain exposure for music, but the events surrounding the growth of television had more complex effects.

Firstly, advertisers started to switch from radio to television - and of course many, quite wrongly, predicted the death of radio. Although the number of radio sets increased after 1955 (due to the introduction of the cheap portable transistor radio), the profits of the network radio stations continued to fall. Throughout the 1950’s radio stations tried to find show formats that would help stem the decline in their revenues. Eventually, by 1960, the idea of a single-format station had spread through the radio industry. Basically this format targeted the entire output of one station to one group of listeners (teenagers [as they were to become], housewives, or car drivers). This format increased the diversity of music that was played over the airwaves because stations would wish to play music suitable for their audience throughout the day, rather than just have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ selection of popular songs.

Secondly, a US supreme court ruling in 1948 had forced the movie production companies to divest themselves of their theatre chains. This ended their complete dominance of the distribution chain. Combined with the perceived impact of television, the American Movie Industry was in trauma. They curtailed the production of musicals which show-cased new songs, and entered the music market themselves.

However, of the movie companies that entered, only MGM played a significant role in the music market in the period 1956-9. The major impact on the market was the growth of independents; the market share of the major's had halved by 1957 (from 75% in 1955). Falling production costs, and greater access to radio helped the independents. But the real difference was in the music that they sold. Whilst the older record companies managed to pick up Buddy Holly and Bill Haley, they missed out on Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and most notably, Elvis with RCA Records paying the independent Sun a release fee of $35 000, a huge sum for the period. The furore that was created around the sexual connotations of Elvis’s gyrating hips, served to publicise and mythologise the new phenomenon of Rock and Roll.

The success of the independents in bringing to the public a new form of music had a dramatic effect on consolidation levels in the US music industry. By 1960 the four largest record companies took a market share of under 30%, and stayed there until 1964. The majors had regarded Rock and Roll as a passing fad and hadn’t fought too hard to attract successful ‘rockers’ to their labels. They reacted by price cutting and pushing the more lucrative LP’s over singles. This was short-sighted as new artists achieve public awareness through the single. They also tried to learn from the success of the independents by encouraging a new entrepreneurial section of the record company called A&R (artist and repertoire). This was a shift of emphasis from the ‘star’ system, where a known artist or performer would be ‘turned’ into a star by heavy promotion, to A&R structures, where creative talent is sought out and then placed in a more product congested market. This tacitly recognised that the real added-value for the record company was not in its ability to promote and distribute more effectively than its competition, but in the creative ability of its artists. Put simply record companies began to realise that they were recording agencies rather than record manufacturers. Hence they should direct their energies to finding the most gifted and creative artists.

However, finding nebulous talent is very difficult (if not impossible), and stories of the blunders of A&R men are well known. The most spectacular of these blunders is surely the decision by the A&R executive at Decca (in Britain) Dick Rowe, to turn down the Beatles in favour of Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. Whilst the UK and European majors had not suffered from the same distrust of monopoly as had the industry in the US, recovery from the second world war had made progress for the music industry hard. Nevertheless two European firms did make strong progress, not least in America; EMI acquired Capitol (one of the four American majors) in 1955, and Phillips (a Dutch firm) acquired Mercury (a successful American independent) in 1961, just a couple of months after terminating a ten year old distribution agreement with American major, Columbia.

The Beatles had come out of the ‘beat’ scene - a British ‘pop’ variant on Rock and Roll. After eventually signing to EMI, the Beatles began their rapid ascent to super-stardom at the end of 1962. British record companies had been keen on local artist development, and the phenomenal success of the Beatles encouraged this trend. The success also altered the balance of power between the British and American firms. Prior to 1960 American record companies had been selling large amounts of American music in Europe. The licensing of the Beatles to EMI’s American subsidiary, Capitol, was the start of a British assault on the American market. The Rolling Stones soon followed, and American companies quickly opened offices in London to tap the source of hither to undiscovered talent.

The period of the mid to late 1960’s ushered in high growth rates for the music industry both in the UK and the US. Musical innovation was at a peak, and record company executives became increasingly aware of the value of the latest sound - the days of regarding a form of new music as a ‘fad’ were gone, new music now represented new opportunities for profit. The LSD-inspired Psychedelic sounds of 1967 spread around the world very quickly. Although, born on the American west coast, British artists were very quick to experiment with these new sounds, which combined with the technological developments in the amplification of musical instruments, played a crucial roll in the success of the British acts that were coming to prominence. The years 1967 to 1970 were formative times for what were to become some of the biggest artists, and some of most popular music genres, of all time - rock music was coming of age. America’s cultural dominance of the recorded music industry was once more under assault from the British.

Back in the US, Rock and Roll had increasingly divested itself of the black roots of its music, and turned itself into a mainstream medium supported by a mostly white audience. But the black music roots of Rock and Roll soon flourished elsewhere in the form of Soul music. Soul blended itself with pop sensibilities in the form of Motown; an independent record company so successful that it actually created and sustained an eponymous genre. This success was based on finding and developing local (black) artistic talent. Amplification was also adopted by the two new black music genres to form a new genre called Funk. This style relied on the ability to produce a strong amplified bass that could cut through a band’s sound to change the rhythmic content of the music opening up a world of possibilities for old and new artists alike - foremost among the older artists was of course James Brown.

Although now steadily increasing, consolidation levels in the US market had remained very low from the watershed of 1955 right through to 1972, where less than 50% of the market was controlled by the four largest firms. There is a popular view which sees the period from the mid sixties to the early/mid 70's as modern music's golden age. Whilst one can quantify sales figures and market shares to show a picture of strong growth in this period, the value of the music produced in terms of its musical potential and its influence on subsequent generations of artists cannot be overstated. Increased competition meant that firms could not shy away from difficult and challenging artists. As Peterson and Berger (1975) say, ‘it was not until the mid-1960’s that the search for new talent became so intense that performers could demand unprecedented artistic freedom’. Record companies were also forced by the market to take risks in promoting artists who had a political agenda. Music became linked not just to rebels without a cause (as it had in the Rock and Roll years) but also rebels with a cause. Bob Dylan was pre-eminent among these politically motivated musicians, and was, according to his fans, responsible for the birth of the Folk Rock genre when he picked up his electric guitar at the Newport Folk festival.

But in the midst of this huge outburst of new music and hence new found added-value there was a steady rise in market consolidation through the late 1960’s until around 1975 (with the exception being the dip in levels of consolidation in 1969 - the year of the Woodstock festival). The increasing strength of the majors is seen as resultant from the adoption of the ‘federal system’. Essentially, this was the multi-divisional corporate form coming to the music industry. Flushed with what the firms perceived as the success of their new A&R departments in identifying new music, vertical integration became the old way to do business. Foremost among these new corporate forms were Warner Brothers. Between 1967 and 1973, Warners acquired the Atlantic, Elektra and Asylum record labels. Instead of integrating these new firms into the Warner Music company in order to reduce costs, the firms were allowed to operate as separate profit centres, developing their own artist rosters and operating in a relatively autonomous manner. However, in terms of finance, manufacturing and distribution, control remained centralised. In this way the highest area of risk was hived off to subsidiary companies, whilst the major firm at the centre attempted to minimise the risk to its revenue streams. Until the oil crises of 1973, subsidiary firms from within the same group were allowed to compete against one another, and this claim Peterson and Berger (1975) ensured that diversity was maintained despite increasing consolidation.

In the UK too, the majors seemed to be slowly tightening their grip on the market place. In 1973 the UK industry formed a trade body, the British Phonographic Institute (B.P.I.), to represent its collective interests. As such, it was some way behind the US whose Recording Industry Association of America (R.I.A.A.) was formed in 1952 for the purpose of fostering a business and legal climate that supports and promotes their members' (the record companies) creative and financial vitality. Both bodies keep a tally of unit sales and hand out gold or platinum awards commensurate with an artist's success in selling records.

So, the music industry seemed to be developing nicely, at least as far as its masters the major record companies were concerned, until 1975, when another (and some claim the last) seismic shift occurred in the music industry. The epicentre for the events of 1975 and 1976, was a small shop called SEX on the King’s Road in London. It was here that the Sex Pistols first met, and soon afterwards were launched on an unsuspecting public by the bohemian entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren. The uproar that greeted their raw, raucous music, and radical politics (or at least the radical politics that McLaren encouraged them to adopt) reached levels of hysteria and provoked establishment disapproval to rival that of the early years of Rock n Roll. By courting controversy and exposure, and getting it, the Sex Pistols became hot property for the music industry.

In fact, the Sex Pistols were too hot for many companies to handle. McLaren managed to exploit the new form and strategies that the major record companies had adopted. Constantly on the lookout for the next big thing, the record companies now noticed a steadying of the huge growth the music industry had experienced from 1965 to 1972. This wasn’t so bad for the majors because they had been increasing their share of the market. McLaren exploited the majors eagerness to find the new musical form. He first sold the recording rights to EMI, who very quickly (thanks in no small part to Cliff Richard, and public and shareholder pressure) decided against releasing a record of the Sex Pistols. EMI paid McLaren substantial damages and released the Sex Pistols from their contract - glad to be rid of them. McLaren then managed a repeat of this lucrative way of doing business with A&M records, until eventually signing to the then independent label Virgin. McLaren had exploited the major record company’s hunger for the latest thing, and profited from their fear of controversy.

Punk did have a strong musical effect in the US making heroes of their own ‘punk’ acts such as the New York Dolls, who had actually preceded the Sex Pistols. However, commercially in the US punk (at least in its rawest form) was not hugely significant. And whilst in the UK the effect of punk, and the rise of independent punk record labels are reflected in a decline in levels of consolidation, in the US disco was the new thing. Disco music, which grew out of the gay night clubs of New York, was correctly perceived as a safe bet for America’s music corporations. The songs were by and large apolitical, and the musical sound was inoffensive and certainly easier on the ears than punk. There had been some success in promoting songs through films since the demise of the Hollywood musical, but none matched the world wide film and music success of Saturday Night Fever. The industry was reminded of its past successes of using film as a method of promoting both artists and musical content. The relationship between the entertainment and media companies was set to get closer.

Disco, both in the UK and the US, helped the majors regain market share because disco had much higher production values than punk, and hence could not be effectively performed by those with limited technical skills. It also required sophisticated studio recording techniques. A similar problem had existed for the less musically skilled (although not necessarily less creative) artists in the period of concentration to 1973, where the complexity of rock music had demanded high musical virtuosity and expensive studio time.

Nevertheless, music refused to stand still. New music was created in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s whilst the major firms were suffering a diminishing share of the market. Record companies were worried about the introduction of the cassette tape, fearing that they would lose money from home taping and piracy. Although in the end vinyl sales were overcome by tape sales, the major record companies' fear of a re-recordable format was misplaced. Less paralysed by fear and more open to the possibilities for music rather than format, new independent record companies formed around new genres like New Romantic, Hip Hop, and Electro. Whilst these factors contributed to consolidation rates dropping below 50% in the UK market in 1982-3, the majors quickly recovered their position. Since then consolidation rates have remained high in both the US and the UK.

In the UK the majors increased their market share from around 55% in 1985 to around 65% in 1995. They also increased their distribution operations by acquiring or licensing more product from independent labels. This trend was accompanied by a general increase in the value of the world wide music market, leading to claims that the synergistic structure of the industry (where majors feed off independents, and independents off majors) represents a new paradigm. This paradigm is characterised, claim its adherents, by co-operation rather than competition. It’s more efficient because decreased costs make all the record companies leaner and more efficient than before.

Although the mythology of it probably tallies with the major's public relations strategy, the history of the economics of music industry shows the evidence for the co-operation paradigm to be unconvincing. The dynamic for majors to form links with independent third parties has been a constant, whether that be for snatching up new artists who achieve success with limited exposure (as with RCA’s payment to the new phenomenon of Elvis back in 1956), or for the promotion of records on radio. Back in the 1950’s it was a need to protect themselves from the payola that was rife in American radio which increased record companies need to use independents.

It is much more likely that growth in the size of the music industry in the 80's and 90's was due to the introduction of the Compact Disc (CD). The history of the music industry shows that the money-value of the market increases with the launch of popular new music carrier formats. The CD was launched at the beginning of the latest period of consolidation in the early to mid 1980’s. The invention and diffusion of the CD meant that the back catalogues of the major firms became increasingly viewed as a substantial source of revenue. As music consumers gradually replaced their vinyl LP collections with CD’s, the music industry boomed until the recession of the early 1990’s.

After a steadying out of growth, the music industry resumed its upward path as new media opportunities presented themselves. The development of music television and music video tightened the already close links between the media companies and the music industry. In the late 1990's buy-outs, mergers and take-overs have seen the music industry increasingly absorbed into the multi-national corporate world of media conglomerates, able to access and control many channels of distribution such as television and film.

In the UK the music industry seemed to be reaching the pinnacle of its acceptance into the power elites. The British Prime Minister invited the music industry - including some of its biggest stars - to a reception in Downing Street shortly after coming to power in 1997. With (adopted Brits) Sir Bob Geldof and Bono acting as spokesmen for the poor on a world stage, music's political power seemed to be reaching a new peak at the end of a very successful century. This was a welcome distraction from the stagnation, then decline, in the value of recorded music sales that was arriving with the new millennium.

The recorded music industry was the most dominant and prosperous sector of the music business during the 20th century. It helped music affirm its position as an art form both with mass appeal, and political resonance. But the industrial mindset is not sufficient to meet the challenges of the new age. The darkening digital cloud of the Internet may indeed kill the music industry. But maybe that's what music needs; for its art and for its business.

Monday, July 21, 2008

I'm not saying Latitude is middle class but......

Its Monday afternoon. I returned from the Latitude festival yesterday evening. I enjoyed the festival although it was hard work for me. I was lucky to get family into the festival on guest tickets (just £20 charity donation for each one). I had a 'performers' ticket because I was working for Barry Adamson who was appearing in the BAFTA sponsored Film and Media tent late on Friday evening. My family made their own way there on Friday, while I picked up the band, crew and gear needed for the performance and drove everyone to the festival.

After the show I drove through the night to return Barry and the band to their homes and the gear to its lock-up, catching a train back to Latitude on Satuday morning. I arrived at the festival just in time to miss Bill Bailey at the comedy tent. At that point though, nothing was as attractive as sleep. I awoke at about 6pm to enjoy the evening's festivities.

This is the third Latitude festival. I was there last year driving Joe Lean and the Jing, Jang, Jong - but didn't get much of a chance to explore. The festival's setting is beautiful. Its a mix of pasture and woodland with a lake separating the performance arenas from the campsites and stalls. The line-up is quite eclectic - they had Interpol headlining on Sunday, Sigur Ros on Saturday. Perhaps they could of done with a bit of Kaiser Cheifs or something. To be honest, I'm not a fan but sometimes after a few beers (ok, actually I was drinking red wine - and worse still I'd got it in a plastic bottle from Sainsburys)....... you need something that just pushes the right buttons and makes you want to sing along.

In fact, the festival was pretty much devoid of a live act that was very pop or chanty. And I missed it - funny thing though, they had a 70s/80's disco running in the woods on Saturday night - why? People gathered in a woodland in suffolk, under a full moon, and listening to YMCA ! I was hoping for a mix of trad folk and animal sacrifice. I think many people would applaud Festival Republic for being so 'left-field' in their bill - and I'm sure any criticisms would be band-aided with the claim that they were being brave. But I'm left feeling that being brave would actually have meant putting the Kaiser Chiefs and Interpol on the same bill. I suppose what I'm saying is that music's important, but I don't go to a festival to worship it. *We* go there for music to bring *us* together.

I spent a couple of hours at the comedy tent on Sunday around midday. Rufus Hound took the piss out of the festival being so middle-class. 'I'm not saying Latitude is middle class but.....' - I can't remember now, but he filled in the '........' with loads of witty stuff. He was funny. And right to take the piss. The tent next to ours had its own toilet housed in it's own 'outhouse' tent. Surely the point of a festival is to remind us that if we have enough time and forethought to provide ourselves with our own private portaloo tent - then we're not really living life. I expressed this view to my wife - she said that it'd 'be handy if you had litte 'uns'.

So I suppose its difficult to say. We each take out of these things what we want. Anyway, below you'll find a link to a slideshow from flickr - I went through the 'Latitude 2008' photos last night. And a link to a song I was playing while I viewed the photos. Enjoy!

My Favs from photos tagged 'Latitude 2008' on Flickr

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Sixtyone (2)

This post is about the - my favourite music website. If you're not familiar with t61 this post will make very little sense.

t61 - the game
A month or two after I joined t61, I got into bumping songs to earn points. It felt good to pick out a song I thought would become popular, bet on it, and then earn points for picking a winner. It was nice to see the points total rising. My listening habits changed a bit. I listened to more songs for less time per song, but overall my listening increased dramatically (I'm only going from memory, here - the real figures are probably extant on t61's database). My betting behaviour changed. I became more concious of betting on something I thought others would like. I would spend, or rather invest all my points and knowing that the more I invested the greater my rewards - its not like I needed to save any for a rainy day. Then, I discovered the browse section and began cruising the new stuff. Basically, if you bump a song before others your rewards are far greater than if you are a late bumper. For a few days I battled with a few other 61er's to first bump any catchy new tune that appeared.

I couldn't stop myself from working out quite how much effort it would take to put oneself up in the rankings of the top listeners. My growth rate seemed quite reasonable, I seemed to be doubling my points every few days at the peak of my activity. But the effort it would take over an extended period to really get 'up there' ruled out any idea that I could actually become a top listener (and hence have more power to bump a song to popularity). It hadn't been a serious thought, but the desire was there. I contented myself with the goal of getting in the top 1000 listeners.

But no sooner had I really got into 'playing the game of t61' - than the site's owners changed the rules. They wanted it to be a 'music adventure'. In other words, it was supposed to be about the music, not the game. I stopped playing. For a few short days I'd listened to more new music than ever - and new music that in the main, wasn't filtered through the 'machine' of the recording industry. However, I wasn't listening as 'deeply' as before. I'd tend to listen to new stuff as work, making a decision to bump, add or discard within the first minute, and then return to a few favourites when I wanted to listen for pleasure. Every now and then though, from my listening work, a little gem would pop up and become one of those favourites

Very soon, real life forced me to take a break from t61, as I knew it would. I did make it into the top 1000 - but subsequently dropped out when I went on a points spending spree on some songs I liked.

t61 - the music genres
If you take a look at my profile and check out my music page you'll see I've tried to organise my music in a non-traditional way. Basically I think of two words which best describe the music, eg 'happy pop', 'dirty electro-dance', 'rock soundscape', 'crazy wierd' (there's some good un's in there !). This two word description then becomes the genre. I haven't set myself any firm rules yet, but I do try to keep to just one hyphenated word - otherwise I'd end up with monstrosities like 'electro-funk alternative-drumnbass'. I don't stick to known genres; the words could be purely descriptive of the feel of the music.

For me the system seems to work. What I need to find is a technological solution to make it easier just to tag a song with two words, and also auto-suggest words that I've already used. But fundamentally, choosing music based on a two word description of the general characteristics of a song seems a better solution than having a 19 year-old journalist at the NME do it for me. I'll be posting a lot on music genres, I expect. Its a subject that's dear to my heart ! 

As I've been in the process of writing this post, I've been back to trying to grab a few more points. I'm going to try the basic method of following the top listeners by subscribing to them and bumping what they bump. It seems an easy way to ratchet up my score quite quickly - I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Sixtyone (1)

The Sixtyone is my favourite music site. Its free for both audience and artist. Its easy to use because its community of users does the work for you. All you have to do to get into it, is press play. You'll discover some new music you like. A couple of artists I have the pleasure of working with have put some stuff up on there - check out Freddie Stevenson and Barry Adamson.

Its not a massive site yet. According to the61 blog the most listeners its had at any one time is around 10K. So there is a bias towards a particular genre - from what I can tell folk and singer/songwriter stuff seems well represented. That's cool with me 'cos I like it - and Freddie seems to be reaping the rewards judging by some of the comments to his tracks. However, I have seen comments that some genres - metal for example - aren't properly appreciated on the61. That may be true - but bear in mind its early days, and I was still able to hear for the first time this awesome guitar hero style instrumental rock track from Buckethead - for the moment its still set as one of my 'profile tunes'.

So that's a brief introduction to the61. My profile is here. I'll expect writing more about the61 as I get the time to do so. I think the combination of a game play structure and a community energises the site through the increased activity rates of its users (I don't think I've been as active - as a user - on any other site - except perhaps google but that's not the same thing). For me it shares something with Habbo (the great untold success story of the internet) by the way it mixes competitive and co-operative dynamics in a new and interesting way. Genres are perhaps the one area that I'm not enamoured with, but I'll save my thoughts on that for another day.

In the meantime, big thanks to the two young guys who created the site from their dorm room - James and AN Other.